Ever wondered where your ancestors came from, why you are the only one in the family with curly hair and freckles or even why you don’t like the taste of cabbage? Huge strides in DNA technology mean that- for a relatively small fee- you can now get answers to all these questions and more.
Growing numbers of companies now offer DNA testing which is revolutionising the way people can research their family trees and help them access detailed information about their genetic traits. Here in the UK, Ancestry.co.uk is one of the biggest companies offering the service. A simple DNA test costs £79, and is done by sending off a saliva sample in a pre-paid envelope. The DNA is sent to the US for analysis with results typically accessible online after six weeks, revealing your ethnic mix from the past 500-1,000 years. The testing service uses some of the latest autosomal testing technology which ‘revolutionises the way you discover your family history’ say Ancestry.co.uk. If you’ve ever wondered for example where in Europe your ancestors originated or whether you’re likely to have East Asian heritage, now you can through a simple, low cost test.
Crucially, the website combines advanced DNA science with the world’s largest online family history resource. With over two million people now registered on the site, you may find distant or long lost relatives you never knew existed whose DNA is a match for your own. Ancestry’s database contains DNA samples from 700,000 people around the world who’ve discovered fascinating, and sometimes surprising, information about their own heritage. Ancestry’s vice president Catherine Ball says that combining DNA testing with the site’s other services is the perfect way to discover relatives you never knew you had: “The vast majority of customers from the UK and Ireland can expect to connect with 3rd or 4th cousins in the US immediately. As more customers from across the globe are added to the network, it will provide an exciting opportunity to connect some of the major migrations from the UK and Ireland.”
The family secret
The site contains many moving testimonials from people who’ve discovered relatives across far-flung corners of the globe. Alan Bush, 71, lives in Leicestershire but grew up in Thornton Heath, Surrey. His parents were white but Alan’s darker skin tone was always a puzzle. “I’d always had a bit of name calling,” he recalls. When he was thirteen, Alan’s ‘mother’ delivered the news that she was actually his grandmother and his true mother was in fact the woman he’d always believed to be his older sister. Recalling his happy childhood, Alan wasn’t too fazed. “I didn’t really think much of it apart from feeling pleased as it was something a bit different that I could tell people about.”
No more was ever spoken of ‘the family secret’, but when Alan’s mother died he began to think more seriously about his origins, and his father. “I found a letter at the bottom of a pile of photographs from a Captain Mohammed Aslam and began to suspect that this was the man who was my father.” Alan started researching online ‘the internet is amazing’ and eventually he ordered a DNA test via Ancestry.co.uk. Results confirmed his suspicions: “It said I was only 1% Anglo Saxon, 4% Irish, 3% Scandinavian, 42% West European and 48% South East Asian.” Since his growing interest in the family tree, Alan’s wife, daughter and granddaughter have all been tested. “It’s been really interesting, my eldest daughter has found she is 24% South East Asian and my granddaughter is 12% so they have all inherited the gene.”
Be prepared for the unexpected!
Ancestry’s online interface tools allow you to link DNA results with existing family trees whilst researching your own as they now hold over 19 billion records and over 80 million family trees. More people than ever are discovering they can connect with long lost relatives and share results. Excitingly, Alan discovered several possible relatives in India but sadly there the trail went cold: “I emailed them all several times but heard nothing back.” He is however enjoying researching the man he is now certain was his father. “It’s a common name which makes research difficult but a little digging has revealed links to a captain who received the Military Cross in 1944.” Alan is currently awaiting delivery of a book which further details his father’s role in the war. “It’s all part of my history and it’s been a fascinating lesson.” His advice to anyone considering DNA testing? “Be prepared for the unexpected!”
Who Do You Think You Are?
Ancestry’s spokesperson Brad Argent has noticed a huge surge of interest in people wanting to find out more about their history. “It used to be in the same category as stamp collecting but today it’s sexy. It’s no longer about names and dates, it’s about the story, we all want to know who they were and how they lived.” Argent credits popular TV programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ for raising interest but says that the advance of DNA testing, and its relative low cost, has opened up enormous possibilities. He believes that the growing fascination is part of a trend for people who want to find out more about their own personal identity and who also seek ‘the feeling of belonging’: “We live in such a cultural melange but people are usually very excited to be Irish or Scandinavian, you might be part Viking which has a very strong cultural presence.”
Genetic risk factors
Personal genetics company23andMe are also helping people access and understand the human genome- made of 3.2 billion bases of DNA. The service aims to help you discover your genetic profile in an easy and affordable manner through testing which currently costs £149. The service includes over 100 health and trait reports along with ancestry information and the ability to download raw genetic data. It won’t diagnose disease, but it can reveal if you carry a recessive genetic variant and includes information on genetic risk factors for eleven diseases and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. You can even find out whether you are more predisposed to blood clots, enabling a discussion with your doctor about appropriate precautions during surgery. Drug response reports can tell you how your body might respond to twelve different drugs such as Warfarin and medications used to treat Hepatitis C.
But the testing isn’t all about your chance of illness and disease. Tests can also reveal 41 physical traits that you may share with your family such as earwax type, hair curl, pain sensitivity, Norovirus resistance and whether you have the ability to smell asparagus metabolite in your urine after eating the vegetable! You can also see if your body metabolises caffeine quickly, if you’re likely to be lactose intolerant, and whether smoking is particularly harmful.
Born in 1944, Gerald Bush from Norfolk took the 23andMe test in 2011 after living with Parkinson’s disease for many years. Initially he wanted to contribute to 23andMe Parkinson’s community who hope that their genetic data and survey responses will help further research and drug development for this debilitating disease. Since receiving his own test results, Gerald has spent a lot of time on his computer, completing 23andMe surveys over the years to support them in their research quest. “It is not easy to deal with Parkinson’s disease on a daily basis, but I think getting involved, being positive and keeping myself busy has helped me tremendously,” says Gerald who along the way discovered that he has a third cousin he knew nothing about who lives in the US. “It’s absolutely fascinating what they can find out about you just through a spit test!”
Gerald is now involved with Parkinson’s UK support groups, he runs a boxing group, and is happy to continue filling out surveys for 23andMe in the hope that his contribution will help someone one day. “I don’t think that they’ll find a cure in my lifetime but I’d like to think that what I’m doing will help someone in the future.” Staying positive is definitely part of Gerald’s DNA. “I may have Parkinson’s disease but I like to say that it hasn’t got me!”
Words by Ginetta Vedrickas